LOS ANGELES — There’s no mistaking the similarities. A childhood on a dusty farm, a love of fast vehicles, a rebel who battles an overpowering empire — George Lucas is the hero he created, Luke Skywalker.
His filmmaking outpost, Skywalker Ranch, is so far removed from the Hollywood moviemaking machine he once despised, that it may as well be on the forest moon of Endor.
That’s why this week’s announcement that Lucas is selling the “Star Wars” franchise and the entire Lucasfilm business to The Walt Disney Co. for more than $4 billion is like a laser blast from outer space.
Lucas built his film operation in Marin County near San Francisco largely to avoid the meddling of Los Angeles-based studios. His aim was to finish the “Star Wars” series– his way.
Today the enterprise has far surpassed the 68-year-old filmmaker’s original goals. The ranch covers 6,100 acres and houses one of the industry’s most acclaimed visual effects companies, Industrial Light & Magic. Lucasfilm, with its headquarters now in San Francisco proper, has ventured into books, video games, merchandise, special effects and marketing. Just as Anakin Skywalker became the villain Darth Vader, Lucas –once the outsider– had grown to become the leader of an empire.
“What I was trying to do was stay independent so that I could make the movies I wanted to make,” Lucas says in the 2004 documentary “Empire of Dreams.” “But now I’ve found myself being the head of a corporation … I have become the very thing that I was trying to avoid.”
After the blockbuster sale announcement Tuesday, Lucas expressed a desire to give away much of his fortune, donate to educational causes and return to the experimental filmmaking of his youth. Still, the move stunned those who’ve followed him. He’d contemplated retirement for years and said he’d never make another “Star Wars” film.
Dale Pollock, the author of the 1999 biography “Skywalking,” said Lucas disdained the Disney culture in interviews he gave in the 1980s, even though he admired the company’s founder. “He felt the corporate ‘Disneyization’ had destroyed the spirit of Walt,” Pollock said.
Lucas said through a spokeswoman on Saturday that he never said such a thing. But his anti-corporate streak is renowned. In the Lucasfilm-sanctioned documentary “Empire of Dreams”, Lucas says on camera that he is “not happy that corporations have taken over the film industry.”
Growing up in the central California town of Modesto, the independent streak was strong in young Lucas. The family lived on a walnut ranch and Lucas’ father owned a stationery store. But, like his fictional protege Luke, George had no interest in taking over the family business. Lucas and his father fought when George made it clear that he’d rather go to college to study art than follow in his father’s footsteps.
Lucas’ intellectual explorations led to an interest in anthropology, especially the work of American mythologist Joseph Campbell, who studied the common thread linking the myths of disparate cultures. This inspired Lucas to explore archetypal storylines that resonated across the ages and around the world.
Lucas’ epic battle with the movie industry began after Warner Bros. forced him to make unwanted changes to an early film, “THX 1138.” Later, Universal Pictures insisted on revisions to “American Graffiti” that Lucas felt impinged on his creative freedom. The experience led Lucas to insist on having total control of all his work, just like Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney in their heyday.
“In order to get my vision out there, I really needed to learn how to manipulate the system because the system is designed to tear you down and destroy everything you are doing,” Lucas said in an interview with Charlie Rose.
He shopped his outline for “Star Wars” to several studios before finding a friend in Alan Ladd Jr., an executive at 20th Century Fox. Despite budget and deadline overruns, and pressure from the studio, the movie was a huge success when it was released in 1977. It grossed $798 million in theaters worldwide and caused Fox’s stock price at the time to double.
In one of the wisest business moves in Hollywood history, Lucas cut a deal with distributor Fox before the film’s release so that he could retain ownership of the sequels and rights for merchandise. He figured in the 1970s that might mean peddling a few T-shirts and posters to fans to help market the movie. Over the decades, merchandising has formed the bedrock of his multi-billion-dollar enterprise, resulting in a bonanza for Lucas from action figures, toys, spinoff books and other products.
Industrial Light & Magic, the unit he started in a makeshift space in the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys, moved to the ranch in northern California and lent its prowess to other movies. It broke ground using computers, motion-controlled cameras, models and masks. Its reach is breathtaking, notably among the biggest science fiction movies of the 1980s: “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Poltergeist,” “Back to the Future,” “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and more.
“Between him and (Steven) Spielberg, they changed how movies got made,” said Matt Atchity, editor-in-chief of movie review website Rotten Tomatoes.
These days, the talent at ILM has spread around the globe, and many former employees have become top executives at other special effects companies, said Chris DeFaria, executive vice president of digital production at Warner Bros.
“You meet anybody who’s a significant executive or artist at a company, they’ve spent their time at ILM or got their start there. That’s probably one of George’s greatest gifts to the business,” DeFaria said.
Lucas helped make the tools that were needed for his films. ILM developed the world’s first computerized film editing and music mixing technology, revolutionizing what had been a cut-and-splice affair. Pixar, the imaging computer he founded as a division of Lucasfilm, became a world-famous animated movie company. Apple’s Steve Jobs bought and later sold it to Disney in 2006.
But the goliath Lucas created began to weigh on him. Fans-turned-critics felt the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy he directed fell short of the first films. Others believed his revisions to the re-released classics undid some of what made the first movies great.
Giving up his role at the head of Lucasfilm may shield him from the fury of rebellious fans and critics. He said in a video released by Disney that the sale would allow him to “do other things, things in philanthropy and doing more experimental kind of films.”
“I couldn’t really drag my company into that.”
Still, Lucas is not planning on going to a galaxy far, far away.
Speaking on Friday night at Ebony magazine’s Power 100 event in New York, Lucas said: “It’s 40 years of work and it’s been my life, but I’m ready to move on to bigger and better things. I have a foundation, an educational foundation. I do a lot of work with education, and I’m very excited about doing that.”
This week he assured the incoming president of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy that he’d be around to advise her on future “Star Wars” movies –just like the apparition of Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi helps Luke through his adventures.
“They’re finishing the hologram now,” he told Kennedy. “Don’t worry.”